One of Israel’s outstanding advocates and legislators in the field of social justice in general and women’s rights in particular, Ora Namir was the only child of pioneering agricultural laborers in the moshav of Hoglah in the central Sharon region of Israel (founded in 1933). Her father, Pinhas Toib (c. 1900–1983), was an immigrant from Kovel, Ukraine, who had studied both in a heder and at a Tarbut gymnasia. In 1925 he immigrated to Palestine, where he met and married Miriam Trachtenberg (c. 1900–1990), who had arrived from Zhytomyr (Ukraine) in the same year as himself. They moved to Hoglah in 1936.
Namir, who lists her profession as “Clerk,” was born in Haderah on September 1, 1930. Her formal education was frequently interrupted. After attending the first eight grades of elementary school in Kefar Hoglah, she studied for one year at Kibbutz Givat Hayyim, where the “outsiders” were not welcomed, and then spent an unhappy year at the Lewinsky Seminary where she found the large classes, unsympathetic staff and formal atmosphere uncongenial. Transferring once more, this time to Givat ha-Sheloshah, which she liked, she encountered a further cause for interruption when the War of Independence broke out in 1948 and she felt impelled to join the Israel Defense Forces, in which she became an officer. In the early 1950s she went to New York to work at the Israel Consulate, where she served as secretary to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations and also taught Hebrew to the then-consul general, Avraham Harman. In this way she was able to fulfill her ambition to attend courses in classical studies and English literature at Hunter College. However, lack of funds and a severe injury incurred during a compulsory physical education class compelled her to abandon her studies and return to Israel.
In 1959, Ora Toib married Mordechai Namir (1897–1975), who was at the time the mayor of Tel Aviv, and began to take an active interest in matters relating to young people. In 1967 she was elected secretary-general of the Tel Aviv-Jaffa branch of the Mo’ezet ha-Po’alot, a post she held until 1979. Elected to the Knesset as a member of the Ma’arakh in 1973, she served as secretary to the Mapai party and the political coalition and began a long and distinguished career as a legislator, which continued until the Thirteenth Knesset (1992–1996).
During her first term, Namir served on both the Education and Cultural Committee and the Public Services Committee. Later (in the Ninth and Tenth Knessets), she chaired the Education and Culture Committee and in the Eleventh (1984–1988) and Twelfth (1988–1992), chaired the Labor and Social Welfare Committee. During the Thirteenth Knesset period (1992–1996), she was first briefly Minister for the Environment and subsequently, from December 31, 1992 until May 21, 1996, Minister of Labor and Social Welfare.
In 1975, the UN International Year of the Woman, Namir’s experience in an organization that dealt primarily with the status and welfare of working women led the prime minister, Yizhak Rabin, to invite her to head a commission of enquiry into the status of women in Israel—an issue that had been unexpectedly highlighted by the experience of the Yom Kippur War (1973). For the first time in the (albeit short) history of the state, people were made aware of the extent to which women had been relegated to inferior, lower-paid positions, were employed primarily in the service professions and excluded from vital decision-making and determination of public policy. The commission, which Namir headed with great skill, was comprised of almost one hundred (women) legislators and members of the general public, most of them women, who had first-hand knowledge of one or more areas of public and professional life. Working in a purely voluntary capacity under the excellent co-ordinator, Ora Ahimeir, they collected and collated hitherto unknown data on women in Israel, which were summarized in a two-volume report that not only exposed the truth behind the myth of Israel as an egalitarian country, but also presented one hundred and forty recommendations for change. For the majority of the commission members, including Namir herself, the two years of activity proved an eye-opening experience. Although all too little government action followed (in part because the prime minister to whom the commission reported was no longer Rabin, but Menahem Begin), the Namir Commission can with full justification be seen as the catalyst for later feminist advocacy and activity, including the 1984 founding of the Israel Women’s Network, many of whose members had served on the commission. In 1995, Namir headed the Israeli delegation to the UN Conference on Women, held in Beijing.
Namir herself initiated and/or helped to ensure the passage of several laws related to women’s status and welfare. These included the Equal Retirement Age of Men and Women (1987), the Equal Opportunities in Employment Act (1988) and the Equal Pay for Men and Women Workers Act (1996). Equally concerned with the rights of the economically and socially disadvantaged sectors of the population, Namir was largely responsible for the passage of the Minimum Wage Law (1987). She ardently and successfully advocated the National Insurance Institute as the major tool of Israel’s social welfare system.
In May 1996, after successfully overcoming a serious illness and unsuccessfully competing for the position of Chairperson of the Labor Party following the assassination of her mentor Yizhak Rabin, Ora Namir took up a new career as a diplomat: she was appointed Israel’s ambassador to China and non-resident ambassador to Mongolia. In this for her unaccustomed role, she displayed her customary energy, diligence and skill. Traveling tirelessly throughout the vast country, she achieved unmediated contact with citizens of all types and professions. She frequently hosted members of the Chinese government and provincial governors, at the same time ensuring that they meet representatives of various sectors in Israel—agriculturists, industrialists, economists, scientists and academics—thus facilitating the initiation of ongoing collaboration of various kinds. One member of the Israeli delegation testified that the Chinese guests were often amazed by the amount and precision of her knowledge of their country and its people, as well as her ability to understand the many problems that they faced. In 1998, on the occasion of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary, Ariel Sharon, in his capacity of Minister of National Infrastructure, was the first Israeli minister ever to visit the capital of Mongolia. Later he wrote to Namir, warmly congratulating her on her “organization and production” of the celebration, which he described as contributing greatly to ensuring Israel’s presence on the “map of awareness” of Mongolia’s leaders. Namir completed her term of office in 2000 and returned to Tel Aviv.
Acknowledged by both her political colleagues and members of opposition parties as honest, hardworking and courageous, Namir undoubtedly emerged, together with her political rival, Shulamit Aloni, as the outstanding women politicians after Golda Meir, whom they easily outdid so far as advancing the status of Israel’s women was concerned.